It was a golden path walked by the young Dare Okoudjou growing up in Benin. He came from a good family, a teacher father and nurse mother; he wanted for little and was able to study in Europe.
More than a decade ago, as a final year student for a Master’s in telecommunications engineering in Paris, Okoudjou had companies hounding him with lucrative job offers.
Engineering led him to New York and a job as an intern in the autumn of 1998. He was 22 years old.
“In those six months in New York, I realized I wanted to be part of a bigger plan, a bigger picture. There were a lot of offers from companies, such as Ericsson and Alcatel, but I didn’t like it there,” says Okoudjou.
The salaries in telecommunications were high and engineers were sought after, but the thought of working in the United States, far from Africa, terrified Okoudjou.
“Nineteen ninety nine was the boom of the dotcom. I was one of the first people who knew the stuff. At that time, a lot people had not heard about internet in Africa, I was an engineer of it,” says Okoudjou.
Instead, he accepted a job as a consultant in telecommunications and media at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) in Paris in 1999 hoping it would lead home. He says the French were doing a lot of work in Africa. His first project was to launch a mobile network in Morocco. This was fortuitous. When Okoudjou finished school, at the top of the class in Benin, he went to an engineering scholarship in Morocco, for two years.
“At PwC, I met great people from different backgrounds but which I related to. We knew we were fortunate to be there. They were sensitive to the world around them. We shared the sense of responsibility towards the larger community. Then there was a lady who created a link between PwC and the world of NGOs,” says Okoudjou.
In 2001, he quit and joined an NGO in the north of Tanzania. The NGO looked after 30,000 people in a refugee camp in the highly populated Nyanga district.
“That was the time I heard the call of Africa. I felt I needed to do something more helpful to the people than sending money now and then to my parents,” he says.
“African people were going there [Europe] out of desperation, I was not. I was in quest of greatness. I wanted to be the best. I really enjoyed my years in Paris.”
In Tanzania, Okoudjou realized the hidden side of what he calls the business of NGOs. He regrets that the camps turned out businesses that compete to serve people but with no intention to liberate them. Their business was to keep people in the camps as long as they could, he laments.
“No offence to the [NGO] people, some people had great hearts. They wanted to help somehow but that very personal need to help translated into a situation which will maintain thousands of people in the same situation for a long time. The refugees were not allowed to work, as a result they would sell what was donated to them to the working villagers,” says Okoudjou.
“Trade business is better, it provides the right incentives. There are no hidden agendas. The whole NGO business has hidden motives, so I left the NGOs after two months and went back to PwC and later enrolled for an MBA in 2005.”
In 2005, the former Minister of Finance in South Africa, Trevor Manuel, addressed Okoudjou’s MBA classmates in Paris about opportunities that his country had. The idea of setting up in Johannesburg was born.
The following year, Okoudjou joined MTN in Johannesburg and worked in the mobile financial services section, also known as mobile money. This position allowed Okoudjou to travel Africa.
“When I was in Paris in August 2005, there was a small article about MTN mobile money. I knew then that was what I was looking for because it had all the elements. It’s about technology and I love technology. I knew money transfer inside out. We were students in France and people in Benin sent us money. When I was in France I sent money to Benin, but there were always people trying to rip us off. That’s when I wrote to MTN and said I wanted to come and work for them. By the end of 2008, I realized I wanted my own thing and that was mobile money transfer,” says Okoudjou.
It took Okoudjou six months to raise $500,000 and start his own money transfer company, with three people, in Johannesburg. This was a similar business that he managed for three years at MTN. For the next three years Mobile Financial Services Africa won plump contracts with cellphone networks. They grew from one branch in South Africa to more than 10 on the continent. Then disaster struck. The $2 million, raised by the end of 2011, dried up overnight.
“In May last year, it was so hard, I struggled paying salaries, I couldn’t pay my home electricity bill, and they cut it off. I am from Benin, I took it on the chin. We cooked outside on an open fire. I turned it into something fun for my kids,” says Okoudjou.
By June, despite the increasing pressure to salvage the sinking business, Okoudjou says he turned away several offers to sell a portion of the business, or form partnerships. The deals didn’t feel right.
Okoudjou forged ahead trying to save his business. He opened more branches and tried soliciting credible shareholders.
On a hot Friday evening in November, it got worse. Okoudjou’s flight at Abidjan International Airport, back to South Africa, was delayed for six hours. He had flown in to open a branch in Côte d’Ivoire even though his business was bleeding back home. While at the airport, a security company called to tell Okoudjou his house in Johannesburg had been broken into.
“I could hear my children crying. My wife was not there with them. I couldn’t reach her on her phone and I was sitting in that Abidjan airport without money and helpless. I have been trying to do this business for five years, but I failed. I drove this [business] to the ground, there’s nothing I could do… And I remembered I read somewhere: ‘There’s always a way. There must be a way,’” he says.
Okoudjou says in that moment of despair at the airport he took out a piece of paper and wrote all the things he should try and people he should call in the next month to plead for a lifeline.
His father Pierre-Claver Okoudjou is a retired philosophy teacher and a prolific French essay writer in Benin. He says at that lonely moment in Abidjan he took inspiration from his father’s essays.
For a month, Okoudjou worked hard to find investors to save his business. Now, it is safe with 10 shareholders and 20 employees on the continent.
“We are not completely out of the woods, we still have a mountain to climb,” he says.
That is the philosophy that emerges from the scars of a worst day when you suffer the tears of your children from far away.